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Willpower is just remembering what you want

I don't know who said that first, but they nailed it.

Anyone else always score really low on ”exercises self-control” on your report card? I grew up thinking I had zero willpower, was undisciplined, messy, and kind of a lost cause. My attempts to change this were mostly futile until I hit my early thirties.

I can’t remember where I first came across this quote and the internet isn’t helping, but it pretty succinctly captures everything I learned about how pointless it was to try to change by “finally having self-control,” which was what I did for a long tie. If I’d kept thinking that way, I don’t think I’d have been able to make all the big changes I’ve made, from quitting drinking to building a daily exercise habit to writing two books. Thinking of willpower this way has literally changed my life.

Here’s why: when we start trying to change from an idea of bad vs. good, should vs. shouldn’t, controlled vs. lack of control, we wind up seeing the thing we’re trying to leave behind as the thing we naturally want and the thing we’re trying to do now as something that has to be forced. Like well I WANT Netflix but I SHOULD work on my novel.

But when we think of willpower as merely reminding ourselves what we want, we can recognize that it’s not about want vs. should, it’s about what do I want MORE? Do I want Netflix more or to work on my novel more? If I see working on the novel as what I really want, rather than just something I should do to be “better”, I have a much better chance of doing it.

That's because motivating human behavior is what the emotion of wanting is for.

And noticing that you actually WANT the behavior or thing you’re trying to create in your life turns it into something that's already part of you, rather than something being imposed by the outside, so that you can finally be good.

Want to get started in five minutes or less?

Here's what to do.

  1. Identify a behavior you want to change. It can be something you want to start doing, stop doing, whatever.

  2. Write down the reasons you’ve been telling yourself you SHOULD make this change.

  3. Now write down at least five reasons that you WANT to do make this change. BE HONEST. Lies are not motivating. Why do you want to alter your life or actions in this way?

  4. Let yourself feel how much you WANT these things. It may bring up complicated emotions, if you haven’t been facing these wants. That’s OK. If you’re sad because you want to make art and you haven’t been doing it, for example, just let yourself notice that. Then focus on how much you still WANT to do it.

  5. At this point your brain my try to tell you a bunch of bullshit like, “well it’s too late now” or “it won’t really work”. That’s OK too. Just let those thoughts be there and go back to your WANTS.

  6. Next time an internal conflict comes up about making this change ask yourself: which thing do I want more? And look back at your list if necessary.

Let me know how it goes.

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